Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Look Back on 2011 - Exciting Year at the Florida Theme Parks

One of the main reasons I moved to Celebration, Florida, was because of my love of Disney World and the other Central Florida theme parks. When we made the big move, the only others we were familiar with were Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Living in Celebration meant learning more about SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, too, since they were now easily accessible.

The theme parks are part of my leisure time, and they're also work. As the Orlando Theme Parks Examiner and a freelance writer doing articles and guides for Disney World and the other parks, visiting them is a necessity (albeit one I love). In reflecting back over 2011, I pinpointed my five favorite theme park events in 2011. Here there are in no particular order (and there's a related story in my Examiner column):

-Legoland Florida opens on the site of the old Cypress Gardens theme park. Yes, I know I said these were in no particular order, but I have to put this one first because opening a brand-new theme park is big news. Well, okay, it's not 100 percent brand new. It retains some elements of Cypress Gardens, like many of the roller coasters, the carousel, the very cool Island in the Sky, and the gardens themselves. But it's amazing how much has changed and how quickly it was put together. In March, I was taking a helicopter ride over the construction site. In October, I was watching the opening ceremony where the final gold brick was snapped into place to signify the park's completion.

Even though Legoland Florida is meant mainly for kids between the ages of 2 and 12, adults can find lots of enjoyment there. I love strolling through the gardens, getting a birds-eye view on Island in the Sky, and looking for new details in Miniland USA. Some of the rides are fun for "big kids," too, but I warn you: the roller coasters are real knee bangers.

-Star Tours reopens at Disney's Hollywood Studios. This was such a cool event in so many ways. I love what they did with the ride, which now features C3PO prominently and which has multiple versions. It will quickly become a vendetta to ride it multiple times so you can see as many as possible.

But perhaps most cool of all was being there for the opening and standing within spitting distance of George Lucas as a voice intoned, "Darth Vader, meet your maker." There were designers from Industrial Light & Magic on hand, too, and even Anthony Daniels himself. Meeting him was a major geek-out for me.

-Cheetah Hunt opens at Busch Gardens Tampa. Busch Gardens is Central Florida's roller coaster mecca, and Cheetah Hunt is a worthy addition. SheiKra is still my favorite, both for its airtime and its sheer size, but Cheetah Hunt nips at its heels. It seemed to run slower when it first opened, but once it broke in, it became an airtime machine. The launches give it a uniqueness that make it a nice counterpoint to the existing coasters. The lines get extremely long at peak times, but it's almost walk-on in the quiet season so you can get your fill of the speed.

-SeaWorld debuts its One Ocean show. I miss the "Believe" orca show, but "One Ocean" is a worthy successor, and I really love the first song. Having lived in Celebration for many years now, and being a SeaWorld passholder who visits the park regularly, I know the orcas' names and can usually tell them apart. I love how One Ocean gives them an opportunity to showcase their individual personalities. Of course, Shamu himself (i.e. Tili) still comes out at the end to soak the audience as only he can.

-Universal Orlando has its first Halloween Horror Nights tweet-up. The Central Florida theme parks are really embracing social media in general and Facebook and Twitter in particular. This year, Universal held several Halloween Horror Nights tweet-ups, starting before the event even began. Of course I was there to get a sneak preview, and better yet, I won a spot on a group tour through one of the houses with TJ Mannarino (you'll know who that is if you're an HHN fan). My even luckier husband nailed a spot at the team preview of the event. It was a great way for Universal to build even more excitement for Halloween Horror Nights (not that they really need to, since the rabid fans are usually already whipped up into a frenzy by September).

Below are some video highlights of the events. I have my fingers crossed for even better theme parking in 2012, although 2011 will be hard to beat:

Legoland Florida Grand Opening Ceremony:

Interview With Anthony Daniels and Designers from Industrial Light & Magic:

Flashback to Cheetah Hunt Construction at Busch Gardens Tampa:

One Ocean Orca Show Highlights at SeaWorld:

Halloween Horror Nights Tweet-Up Q & A Session at Universal Studios Orlando:

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